UN May Side With Iraqis Over US on Early Elections

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan agreed Monday to send a team of experts to Baghdad to assess the feasibility of holding direct elections in Iraq this year, an idea the United States has already rejected as impracticable.

”The issue now is whether the technical, political or security conditions exist for general direct elections to take place as early as May this year,” Annan told reporters after nearly four hours of closed-door talks with representatives of both the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) in Baghdad and the Iraqi Governing Council (IGC).

If elections are logistically not feasible, Annan was asked to provide alternatives for the U.S.-occupied nation.

The United States has opted for limited elections by regional caucuses which, some critics argue, are vulnerable to manipulation and would very likely result in pro-U.S. candidates being elected to the proposed Iraq transitional government.

Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, a powerful Shiite cleric, has publicly rejected choosing caucuses and is demanding direct nation-wide elections before July, a request that has been spurned by the CPA and the IGC as not logistically possible.

The cleric’s call is not surprising, since the concept of regional caucuses is a ”novel democratic practice” the Arabs have never heard of, Salim Lone, a former U.N. spokesman in Baghdad, told IPS.

The crisis created by Sistani’s rejection of the U.S. plan highlights yet again the isolation of the CPA and its head, Ambassador Paul Bremer, said Lone.

”It is Sistani’s implicit support for the American occupation which has been instrumental in restraining a Shiite revolt in Iraq,” he pointed out.

But support from Shiites, who comprise more than 60 percent of Iraq’s 27 million people, has from the beginning been explicitly predicated on speedy elections, which would end a century of marginalisation of the country’s Shiite majority, Lone added.

Like U.S. officials, Annan has also expressed the view that it might not be practicable to hold nation-wide elections by Jul. 1, when the CPA will hand over power to an Iraqi government.

According to some Arab diplomats, there is a strong possibility the U.N. technical team will concur with Annan and Washington.

If this happens, said one diplomat, the United States will tell Sistani, ”Well, even U.N. experts say that direct elections cannot be held before July”, he added.

Asked whether Washington was using the United Nations as a convenient cover for its own objectives, Annan told reporters, ”Our sole objective is to help the Iraqi people”.

”I believe that there is widespread agreement among us that the United Nations will have an important role to play in working with the Iraqi provisional government from July onwards, on key constitutional and electoral issues,” he added.

”We agreed that partnership would be necessary, and we are also going to be active in recovery, reconstruction and in the humanitarian and human rights fields,” said the U.N. chief.

Asked about massive Shiite demonstrations in Iraq demanding direct elections, Bremer told reporters Monday, ”One of the reasons why we sent our troops to Iraq was for freedom (for the Iraqis) and to allow them to participate in democracy. And one of the beauties of democracy is freedom of speech and freedom of assembly”.

”We welcome peaceful demonstrations but some of them have not been very friendly,” he added. ”The interesting thing is that the Iraqi people want sovereignty back”.

”Our problem is how to get a transparent process by which to get a transitional legislature chosen to whom we can hand sovereignty”.

”Obviously, there is a risk for the United Nations to return to Iraq,” Jim Paul of the New York-based Global Policy Forum, told IPS.

Annan has always said he was concerned about security in Iraq. That might be a legitimate excuse, Paul added, but the U.N. leader has had more than security on his mind.

”The United Nations has already frittered away some of its credibility,” according to Paul. And so, it wants to make sure it has an important future role to play in Iraq. But neither the CPA nor the IGC has yet spelled out that key role. ”That’s the danger,” he added.

With impending elections, said Paul, the IGC also does not want to be seen as merely a puppet of the United States.

Members of the IGC, he said, have to distance themselves from the United States if they want to get elected to office. Currently, they are viewed as creatures of Washington.

”So the United Nations is in a way the card they want to play. They are much keener than the United States to get the United Nations into Iraq. They want the United Nations as a cover.”

Inter Press Service

Author: Thalif Deen

Thalif Deen writes for Inter Press Service.